Leading Saudi Shi’ite clerics called on Thursday for protesters to end two months of demonstrations in the kingdom’s oil-producing Eastern Province, in an apparent bowing to government demands.
In at least two eastern towns, however, young Shi’ites ignored the call and took to the streets again to demand the release of prisoners and political reforms, activists said.
Inspired by Arab uprisings in Egypt or Tunisia, Saudi Shi’ites have been staging small protests in the Eastern Province, defying a demonstration ban and government pressure.
The Sunni Muslim monarchy of Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and major U.S. ally, does not tolerate any form of public dissent and the kingdom has not seen the mass uprisings seen in other countries in the region.
After meeting government officials, leading Shi’ite clerics issued a statement asking activists to end demonstrations.
“We urge our beloved brothers … to calm the streets for the sake of brotherly cooperation that will help achieve our demands,” said the statement signed by 51 Shi’ite clerics and other personalities.
“We stress our demands to officials to address the issues and deliver on legitimate rights raised by a group of young people.”
A Shi’ite activist said the statement would probably not halt protests as young people were demanding reforms promised for years.
“It might reduce the number of protestors but I don’t think it will end it,” said the activist, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals.
Saudi Shi’ites have long complained of difficulties getting government jobs and benefits enjoyed by the country’s majority Sunni population, a charge denied by Riyadh.
On Thursday, dozens of Shi’ites staged protests in the main Shi’ite city of Qatif and neighbouring village of Awwamiya, an activist said.
Saudi authorities have been increasingly nervous about protests, arresting participants and making independent travelling for journalists more difficult in the Eastern Province.
More than 160 Saudi activists have been arrested since February, Human Rights Watch said in a report this week.
On Sunday, Saudi authorities arrested a Shi’ite Muslim intellectual al-Saeed al-Majid, two days after protests in the Eastern Province.